A complete biography of Agnes Martin

New paperback by Nancy Princenthal sheds light on famous Taos artist

By Johanna DeBiase
Posted 3/6/19

Author Nancy Princenthal's book won the 2016 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography.

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A complete biography of Agnes Martin

New paperback by Nancy Princenthal sheds light on famous Taos artist


AGNES MARTIN, Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal, 288 pp. Thames & Hudson $24.95

Have you ever dreamed of leaving everything behind, living in an isolated cabin and doing nothing but art all day long? This may be every creative's dream at some point, but it requires a great sacrifice. You could live in a flow of remarkable bliss and generate all the art/writing/music you are inspired to do, but ultimately, you'd have to give up the company of the people you love - your friends, children and spouse. In the biography "Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art" by Nancy Princenthal, we encounter a great artist who, whether by choice or necessity, picks art over everything else.

Originally published in 2015, "Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art" has recently been released in paperback. Though other books have been published about Martin since then, this one claims to be the first biography of its kind. It won the 2016 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography.

Agnes Martin lived many years in Taos, including her final years. She was considered one of the great abstract painters of the 20th century. In the Harwood Museum of Art, an octagonal room is devoted to her serene penciled grids on square canvases washed in pale hues.

According to her biography, Martin's life begins on a homestead in northern Saskatchewan. "Martin was a lifelong child of the North American West, bred into self-reliance and wired to spring hard on the world, to make do with little if she had to, and to invent herself as freely if circumstances required."

Throughout the book, Princenthal puts Martin's life in the context of contemporary art. For example, in 1912, the year Agnes is born, the reader learns that the first abstractions of Mondrian and Malevich were in the works.

As a young adult, Martin spends much of her time as a student and grade-school teacher. She has many jobs at the time, but she finally settles down and become a full-time artist in 1946 when she arrives in New Mexico. "And it was in New Mexico during this decade that she made the first paintings that have survived, despite her best efforts to suppress them. Though she would later postdate the moment when her life as a painter commenced, her career as an artist had unquestionably begun."

In 1957, at the age of 45, Martin's friendship with New York gallery owner Betty Parsons leads Martin to the Big Apple where she lives at Coenties Slip with many other emerging artists. "Martin could hardly have chosen a more transformative decade to be in New York… Martin would be recognized as a progenitor - however reluctant - of this movement, which came to be called Minimalism, and which helped cement New York's central place in an explosively active new art world."

It is in New York that Martin's work transforms, and she establishes the method for executing her grid paintings. Princenthal goes into pages of minute detail about how Martin's paintings are created, as well as quotes, reviews of her work and information on where all her work is exhibited. While little is said about Martin's relationships, much is said about her art, making this a comprehensive book for true art fans who want all the nitty-gritty details about Martin's work and the inspiration for her work.

Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Martin leaves New York and travels the country, eventually returning to New Mexico. The voices in her head instruct her to rent land and live in an adobe brick home. For many years, she lives as an aesthete with very few belongings or attachments. Since she believes she can hear animals' thoughts, she doesn't keep pets either. "Over and over, [Martin] stressed the importance of working alone, without distraction--no partners of friends, not even dogs."

Many of Martin's writings and lectures are quoted throughout the book, which gives insight into Martin's thoughts and ideals. Princenthal writes that Martin's lectures are not all that different from the tone she takes in her social interactions. Martin tells students in one lecture, "There is no half-way with art. We wake up thinking about it and we go to sleep thinking about it."

In her fifties, Martin receives wealth and recognition. "Hardly alone among artists, Martin had conflicted feelings about success. While she went all out for recognition, she also feared it, as attested by her preoccupation, in her later writing, with the sin of pride." Truly an artist's artist, throughout her extraordinary life, Martin remains grounded and true to her passion for art, never losing touch with her vision.

Princenthal is a New York-based critic and former senior editor of Art in America magazine, for which she continues to write regularly. Other publications to which she has contributed include Artforum, The Village Voice and The New York Times. She is the co-author of two recent books on leading women artists, including "The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium." Having taught at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; Princeton University; Yale University; Rhode Island School of Design and elsewhere, she is currently on the faculty of the New York's School of Visual Arts.


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